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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 317-318
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City For Sale
City For Sale. By Joan Holden and Kate Chumley, lyrics by Bruce Barthol, music by Barthol and Jason Sherbundy. San Francisco Mime Troupe, Bergamont Station, Santa Monica, California. 2 October 2000.
The hardest fought election issue in San Francisco last November was Proposition L, a grass-roots measure designed to curb dot-com development and check soaring rent prices and evictions in the city's working class neighborhoods. Mayor Willie Brown raised $2.5 million from developers to defeat the proposition and prevailed by a margin of less than one percent over an unprecedented alliance of artists, slow-growth advocates, and community activists who raised only $100,000. Three weeks before the election, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a three-day series mourning the death of culture in the city, where artists can no longer afford to stay. Joan Holden, veteran San Francisco Mime Troupe playwright, was an active member of the campaign, and her City for Sale, performed locally through the summer of 1999, helped lay the groundwork for it.
City for Sale, which toured the country throughout the fall of 2000, examines the conflict between low-income tenants and real estate developers, suggesting the severe cultural toll on a city when artists and other workers are forced out. Although the setting of City for Sale is the fictional Coast City, it was inspired by current gentrification of the Mission District in San Francisco, a heavily Latino neighborhood on the city's southeast side and home of the Mime Troupe for forty years. Although artists are rarely the protagonists of Mime Troupe shows, City for Sale, like San Fran Scandals a quarter century ago, examines an actual situation of artist exploitation. By perverting the legally undefined term "artist," live/work lofts in industrial zones intended as low cost housing alternatives are being sold to dot-comers, causing the eviction of real artists and other working class people. Since 1970 the Mime Troupe has produced five other shows specifically dealing with San Francisco's attempted displacement of the poor by the rich: Los Siete (1970), High Rises (1972), San Fran Scandals (1973), Hotel Universe (1977, 1980, 1986), and Ghosts (1981).
Written by mother-daughter team Joan Holden and Kate Chumley, with lyrics by Bruce Barthol and music by Barthol and Jason Sherbundy, the story involves a struggling three piece band, Califas Triscuit, who lose their loft space because Ben (Amos Glick), who inherited his father's old factory buildings, can remodel them as live/work lofts and sell them to yuppies for huge profits. However, Junior (Barthol), the over-fifty hippie in the band, was promised housing for life by his now deceased friend, Ben's father. The Alta California Body Shop on the first floor, owned by Mexican immigrant, Alonso (Luis Oropeza), and employing five workers, is also being evicted. The play begins with Ben selling half of the second floor for only $400K to Agnes (Stephanie Taylor), a computer nerd working in Silicon Valley, who loves the ambiance of the place and believes the auto shop and musicians are moving by choice. Junior, who knows just about everyone in Coast City, happens to have dated the Mayor (Velina Brown, also playing band member Daria) before she went into politics, and a visit to her seems hopeful until, like most political leaders, her sentiments conflict with her bottomless pockets. A growing group of displaced businesses, including a tap dance studio and a sex toy/leather shop, creates a small army of workers who, at play's end, support Junior's refusal to move.
This collective action leaves spectators optimistic, as does Agnes's withdrawal once she discovers her trendy new life style is at the expense of those who give the neighborhood its character. Her transformation occurs in a beautifully written, perfectly staged scene with a homeless beat poet in a wheelchair, backed up by a cool 1950s sound. When [End Page 317] Agnes defends her impending move, the Poet says: "You're homesteaders." Agnes nods: "Exactly!" And the Poet replies: "We...